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Bulgarian play defies pro-Kremlin sentiment with satirical take on Putin's war crimes

A highly acclaimed satirical play, titled "The Hague," which explores President Vladimir Putin and his allies facing a war crimes tribunal, making waves in Bulgaria, a country historically close to Russia.

Created by Ukrainian author Sasha Denisova and guest directed by Galin Stoev,the play narrates the tale of an orphaned teenager from Mariupol who envisions the top brass of Russia being held accountable for their role in the devastating war in Ukraine.

Following its premieres in Poland and the United States earlier this year, celebrated guest director Galin Stoev adapted the play for a Bulgarian audience, aiming to challenge the pro-Kremlin sentiment prevalent in the Balkan country.

In the same way as Charlie Chaplin mocked Nazi leader Adolf Hitler on screen, "Putin must be laughed at without mercy," says Denisova.

Satire of war

Bulgarian artist Radena Valkanova (L) prepares with make-up backstage ahead of her performance in the role of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the play "Haga"
Bulgarian artist Radena Valkanova (L) prepares with make-up backstage ahead of her performance in the role of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the play "Haga" - NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP

In the current staging at Sofia's National Theatre, the role of Putin is played by female Bulgarian actor Radena Valkanova.

"When Galin put this proposal to me, I didn't know that Putin was to be played by a woman and I said "Bah, how's that?" It would be a bit difficult to act like a man and what's the point. Then I understood that that was how it was thought out to be," Valkanova explains.

The Putin impersonator said she was glad the play has sparked "very polarised opinions", deeming them "the purpose of this type of theatre".

"I am happy that there is something like this to wake up people's thinking -- something that we lack as a nation."

Bulgaria's complex historical affiliation with Russia

Bulgarian artist Radena Valkanova(3R), as Vladimir Putin and Julian Vergov (2ndL) as Yevgeny Prigozhin, perform on stage during the play "Haga"
Bulgarian artist Radena Valkanova(3R), as Vladimir Putin and Julian Vergov (2ndL) as Yevgeny Prigozhin, perform on stage during the play "Haga" - NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP

Historically close to Russia, EU and NATO member Bulgaria still has many citizens nostalgic for what they see as the glory days of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union.

The nostalgia also refers to Russia as a protector for the Slavic people of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule.

Studies suggesting that 30 percent of Bulgarians are pro-Putin - despite Moscow's relentless war on Ukraine - encouraged Stoev in his determination to stage an "eye-opening" adaptation of the play in Sofia.

"The audience is deeply moved and asks questions," says Stoev, after the actors received another round of standing ovations from the crowd.

Evolving script

Bulgarian artist Julian Vergov performs on stage in the role of Yevgeny Prigozhin, during the play "Haga" at the National Theatre Ivan Vzaov in Sofia on November 14, 2023.
Bulgarian artist Julian Vergov performs on stage in the role of Yevgeny Prigozhin, during the play "Haga" at the National Theatre Ivan Vzaov in Sofia on November 14, 2023. - NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP

But the main challenge lies in constantly updating the script to reflect the current state of the war.

Yulian Vergov, portraying Russian Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, highlights the difficulty of incorporating new elements into the script, such as an aborted mutiny and Prigozhin's death in a plane crash.

Despite the fictional nature of the play, the impact of portraying a real character whose fate remains uncertain during rehearsals adds to the intensity of the performance.

"It's the first time something like this happened to me and it was infinitely interesting to change lines like that all the time. The play is a fiction in the head of a child but, after all, you play a real character, who then dies during the rehearsals, this is impressive. So I told myself, let us premiere and whatever changes after that we stay the way we are," explains Vergov.

While the play has garnered widespread acclaim, some critics dismiss it as "biased propaganda vaudeville."

Theatre director Vasil Vasilev countered such claims, asserting that the production invites spectators to reflect on real events and draw their own conclusions, emphasising the importance of avoiding politicisation.

Following a stopover in Toulouse, where Stoev heads the national drama centre, there are plans to stage the play in the Bulgarian countryside, an area known for its susceptibility to pro-Russian sentiment.

"The Hague" is running until 28 February 2024 at the Sofia's National Theatre.